Kandy Sri Lanka

Kandy is the home of the most sacred Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. Kandy is the major city in the central province of Sri Lanka popular one-day trip place from Colombo and beach resorts. And it is located some 500 meters above sea level. Kandy was the last capital of the island and a city with a vibrant history, culture, customs and tradition. Kandy is a very popular tourist attraction like Sigiriya rock fortress and Dambulla golden temple.

Table of Contents

Where is Kandy located

Kandy is the home of the most sacred Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. Kandy is the major city in the central province of Sri Lanka popular one-day trip place from Colombo and beach resorts. And it is located some 500 meters above sea level. Kandy was the last capital of the island and a city with a vibrant history, culture, customs and tradition. Kandy is a very popular tourist attraction like the Sigiriya rock fortress and Dambulla golden temple.

Role of Kandy as a Buddhist city

Sri Lanka is a country with Buddhism as the dominating religion and therefore the majority of the people are Buddhist. The majority of the twenty million people are believers in the doctrine of Buddha.

The Buddhist temples are scattered all around the island and the number is exceeding many thousands. Kandy temple, well-known as Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the tooth can be described as the most visited Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka.

Dalada Maligawa houses the priceless asset of the Buddhist community of Sri Lanka. It is none other than the left eyetooth of Buddha. The tooth relic was brought to the island many centuries ago and it is given the top-most spiritual recognition since the early days.

The temple of the tooth is under the purview of Diyawadana Nilame, the guardian, who is selected to manage the affairs of the temple. The temple is picturesquely located in the middle of Kandy city and the tooth relic temple is one of the most important tourist places in Kandy.

The city and the temple are surrounded by a mountain range. These mountains provided security during the colonial period against the invading Portuguese and Dutch armies. The temple is built with several protective walls and a water ditch.

The Kandy tooth relic temple is visited by thousands of devotees every day and it is part of the Kandy city tour. Devotees bring flowers, oil lamps with coconut oil and incense sticks as offerings. The devotees gather in the temple and engage in offerings, chatting and worshipping as religious activities, similar to most Buddhists.

The Kandy Lake which is in the direction of the west of the temple was built by the last king of Sri Lanka. Today it occupies a significant portion of the city and enhances the natural beauty of the city. The beautifully shaded pavement around the lake provides a pleasant place for an enjoyable trek. You will be rewarded with sights of a large number of birds, water monitors, and tortoises for your time.

The southern border of the temple premises is demarcated by one of the most important natural attractions of the city, known as the Udawattakele forest. This rainforest harbours a large array of animals, insects, flora species and bird species. It is very rich in Bio-diversity and attracts a large number of adventure holiday lovers. It can be used as a place for a walk, trek, and bird watching.

While Dalada Maligawa is the most important attraction in the city, the colonial inheritance in the city is also very notable. A large number of constructions, dating back to the 1800s is rising majestically with other modern constructions. Most of those ancient constructions show typical British architecture. 

Downtown Kandy is a pleasant place to have a walk, where the shoppers are seeing in great numbers. It is full of shops and stalls with clothes, jewellery, handicrafts, souvenirs, tasty foods, and a mixture of betel. Kandy is a shopping city and doesn’t forget to grab typical indigenous handicrafts such as wooden elephant figures, masks, lacquer-ware and silver items in one of the souvenir shops.

Useful reading

The history of Kandy

Kandy was founded by King Vikrama Bahu 3 (1267-1301 AD), the location of the city was recommended by the Brahmin Senkada, as a safe place for the capital of the country. Later the city was named “Senkada gala pura” (the city of Senkada) after the name of the Brahmin. Another historical name of the city was “Senkadagala” (the rock of Senkada). The present name “Kandy” is derived from the term “Kanda Uda Rata” (the kingdom of the mountains), which was used as the name of the city in a later period.

Kanda Uda Rata was a typical Sinhalese term and Portuguese found it difficult to pronounce. They shorten the name and called Kande, therefore foreigners could easily pronounce the name. During the Dutch colonial period, the name of the city was the same as the Portuguese colonial time (Kande), but during the British colonial period, it further evolved and became Kandy. Kande, Kandudarata, maha Nuwara are several names of the city in the past. Today it is known as Nura among the local community. The city first came to be the capital of the island, under the reign of King Wimala darma suriya 1, since then, Kandy was the capital of Sri Lanka till the end of the monarchy (1815).

The city was continuously invaded by the Portuguese from the 16th century. The city was temporarily taken by the Portuguese in 1590, but they were soon expelled from the city by the Kandyan forces. Kandy is surrounded by mountains and thick grown jungles; therefore, militarily Kandy was very suitable for guerilla warfare, practised by the native forces. Kandy was the best hideout against the invading Portuguese forces, who established their control along the coastal belt.

King Wimala drama built the palace in the city and Portuguese war prisoners were used for the construction of the palace. In 1602 a Dutch delegation arrived in Kandy under the leadership of admiral Spillenbergen. The delegation signed an agreement with the king; they were granted permission to erect a fortress on the coast and a monopoly over the cinnamon trade.

In the following year, the relationship between the king and the Dutch administration strengthen. The king was promised the military support of Dutch forces in case of a Portuguese invasion of Kandy.  However, the city was taken by the Portuguese forces in 1623 and the city was completely destroyed under the leadership of general Constantin De Sa.

Owing to a dispute over capturing the king’s elephants, the king took stern action against the Dutch. The king arrested 688 Dutch soldiers and their commander, ADRIAN VAN DER STELL, and later he was murdered. The head of the commander was sent to Negombo.

This act created a permanent war-like situation between the king and the Dutch forces, making another enemy for the king, other than the Portuguese. Dutch invaded the city with 8000 soldiers in 1763 and anchored in the city for nine months. Later the Dutch forces had to abandon the city due to the lack of communication and provisions. When it was difficult to get the support of the king by means of the military, they started a dialogue with the king. Dutch entered into dialogue with the king and signed a peace agreement in 1766, under which, they were given more freedom over the spice trade.

The British took over the administration of the Dutch-controlled areas on the island in 1796. Kandy experienced more invasions under British rule than any other foreign administration. Never-ending British attempts to control Kandy came to end in 1815 when the king was arrested by the British army with the help of opponents of the king.

The sovereignty of the whole country was surrendered to the British crown. The last king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe was sent in exile to south India, where he died in 1832, ceasing the thousands of years of old monarchy in Sri Lanka. Even though there had been rebellions against British administrators, demanding freedom, the city was under the British crown from 1815 till its independence in 1948.

The stylized paintings known as Sittara art that one sees in many temples in the hill country and also on the south coast of Sri Lanka where the cultural impact of Kandy was felt are typically Kandyan. These paintings are all done in long horizontal panels covering the entire wall space narrating a story in full detail, very often a Jataka, by depicting the chief events with a few words of explanation written beneath.

The best-known examples of these comic strip-type paintings are found in several temples in Kandy such as Degaldoruwa, Madavela, Dambulla and Danagirigala and at Tevatta and Mulgirigala in the south. One of the grandest is the depiction of the Vessantara Jataka at Degaldoruwa with the king riding on his elephant with all the insignia of the state; the elephant is drawn with the greatest of skill, the slow movement of the lifted feet and the swinging bells give just the idea of dignified slow progress. This folk art didactic yet delightful, cannot be traced as far as it is known to any foreign influence.

The first expedition

By the 1870s the rulers of Sri Lanka, The Nayakkar was seeking the assistance of a foreign force to expel the Futch forces from the island. Once the Dutch administration in Sri Lanka came to know about the planning of Nayakkar Baron and van Eck who had come as governor decided to retaliate against the move in a harsh manner.

He erected the Star Fort of Matara which is still intact to protect the town against invasion, captured Chilaw and Puttalam and after offering a reward and exemption from aliyam duty to all those who assisted the Company, marched on Kandy.

Expeditions to Kandy were not easy as an inexperienced governor was likely to think, and for a whole century, the company had carefully abstained from making an attempt.

There were no roads; the paths that existed were deliberately kept in a state of disrepair. The inhabitants would flee to the woods on hearing of the approach of an army, and provisions could be obtained without maintaining an unbroken line of communications with Colombo. A small garrison left to protect a post of communication would be soon beset by hordes of enemies and overpowered.

Kandyan warfare

The Kandyan method of warfare is one against which a regular army is powerless unless it is exceedingly numerous. For “conscious of their inability to resist the regular attack of European troops” wrote an officer, who successfully marched to Kandy with a small force, and aware of the advantages they possess in being familiar with the country and insured to the climate, the Kandyan generals avoid close combat, preferring an irregular and desultory warfare.

They harass the enemy in his march, hanging on his flanks, cutting off his supplies, interrupting the communications between his divisions, and occupying the heights which command the passes, they fire with perfect security from behind rocks and trees. They aim principally at the coolies who carry the ammunition and provisions, well knowing that, without these, a regular force can make but little progress. To dislodge them from these heights is a task of extreme difficulty, as the paths leading to them are mostly on the opposite sides of the mountains, and only known to the inhabitants.

“They are accustomed to impede the march of hostile troops by felling and placing as abates, large trees across the defiles. In narrow passes, where they cannot be avoided, this contrivance presents a most serious obstacle to the march of troops, for cutting up and removing large trees is not the business of a moment.”

The first expedition

Such was the case. The invading army was allowed to advance and involve itself in such difficulties and was harassed by guerilla warfare to such an extent, that the expedition returned unsuccessfully. The company thereby lost prestige, and Baron van Eck wished to wipe out the disgrace by a regular and organized invasion. Supplies of troops were obtained from Batavia, and every precaution was taken to prevent foreign aid and local disturbances and to win the sympathy of the anti-Nayakkar faction in Kandy.

In January 1765 the Dutch took the field, marching in two divisions through the Seven Korales to enter Kandy by the Veuda pass, as it was easier than the Balana pass. Captain Tornay with 800 men set out from Puttalam to join the main body at Kurunegala. The governor in person accompanied the main division and reached Kurunegala by way of Negombo, Tambaravila, Katugampola, and Visionary, easily overcoming all resistance. The combined army soon occupied Veuda.

Flight of the king

The successful advance of the army created consternation in the capital. The king, the royal family, and the inhabitants fled; the Nayakkar faction organized resistance, but the Sinhalese party, with which the governor was in communication, now sought to use the opportunity to dethrone the king.

For more than a century Kandy had been free from invasion, and the king was anxious to avert the humiliation of a sack of his capital. He, therefore, sent a message to ask the Dutch not to advance further, as he would send his courtiers to grant the Dutch all they asked. Accordingly, an embassy arrived the next day and offered to concede the Three, Four and Seven Korales with Sabaragamuwa and the absolute possession of the seaboard.

The Sinhalese faction

But the Sinhalese faction had come to offer to deliver up the king if the Company would recognize the Disava as an independent sovereign. These negotiations made the governor think that the king was at his mercy, and on the advice, it is said, of van Anglebeck, and secretary to the government, van Eck demanded that the king should lay down his crown at the feet of the Dutch and accept it as a vassal of the Company, paying a yearly tribute. Such a demand coming from a mercenary Company which had bent the knee to the king of Kandy times out of number greatly incensed the king, who rejected the proposal with scorn.

Kandy has taken

The governor thereupon entered the city, seized the king’s palace and sacked the city. the army garrisoned the city, and detachments were sent in all directions to pursue the king. But these detachments were beaten back with loss, and the Dutch, unaccustomed to military operations, began to place themselves in an awkward position.

The governor returned to Colombo, moody and melancholy, and died in a few days. The officer in command at Kandy was then summoned to Colombo and left with a part of the troops.


By some inexplicable mistakes, the line of communications was abandoned. The garrison of Kandy found itself beset by the Kandyans and isolated with the greater part of the men sick. After nine months, with great difficulty and loss, the garrison retired to Colombo, pursued by the Kandyans, and the expedition on which the governor had reckoned so much turned out a complete failure.

Dutch Invasion of Kandy – the treaty

Van Eck’s successor tried to obtain by diplomacy what military operations failed to achieve. The king’s subjects were suffering from the effects of the recent warfare which prevented them from showing fields. To increase their troubles, the Dutch ravaged the frontiers and prepared expeditions to the interior from Puttalam and Trincomalee. Under these circumstances, the king decided to make peace and sent an ambassador to Colombo.

Treaty of 1766

Falk realized the king’s helplessness and urged very unfavourable terms, which the ambassadors had no choice to accept. These terms were that the king should relinquish all claims, and grant to the company the lawful, independent, and paramount sovereignty of the disava of Matara, Galle, Colombo, and Jaffna; the districts of Kalpitiya, Mannar, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa; and a strip of the seaboard.

The company had the land strip connecting the Dutch settlement so that the Company would be masters of the entire coast of Ceylon. The company in its turn recognized the king’s sovereignty over the island parts of Ceylon; promised to give free access to the salt lavayes on the east and west coast and grant free trade.

The king was to concede to the Dutch the monopoly of trade and permission to peel cinnamon in the king’s lands, and do away with the humiliating prostration demanded from ambassadors. The company in recompense would pay an annual subsidy equal to the income that would have been derived by the king from the strip of seaboard granted to the company.

Dutch drive a hard bargain

By this treaty the king made himself a virtual prisoner, cutting limited off from the possibility of communicating with foreigners, and placing himself and his subjects in the perilous position of depending on the Dutch for their supplies of salt.

This iniquitous treaty the ambassador accepted for the nonce, apparently in the hope of securing modifications later on, or of not observing the terms when they were strong enough. This attempt of the Dutch to drive a hard bargain, however, opened the way to their undoing, just as the similar attempt to isolate Rajasinghe led to the expulsion of the Portuguese.

Attempts to modify the treaty

The Disava of Colombo took the treaty to Hanguranketa for the king’s signature. He was quite ready to sign it, as he was aware of the machination of the anti-Nayakkar faction. That faction, in fact, included even the Kandyan ambassadors who came to make the treaty and Falk who knew this, even suggested adding a clause against the Nayakkars, but the ambassadors were unwilling to show their hand too early. Falk, however, instructed his Disava to ask the king to get the Kandyan Disavas also to sign the treaty. King Kirti Sri would not listen to a suggestion calculated to give more solemnity to the treaty and greater importance to the Disava.

Soon after signing the treaty, the king returned to Kandy, repaired the damage caused to buildings and temples by the Dutch, re-erected viharas and dispatched ambassadors to Batavia to ask for a modification of the treaty. Batavia was inexorable, and the ambassador did not survive the voyage.

In 1772 when the king had succeeded in strengthening his position against the anti-Nayakkar faction, he sent ambassadors to Colombo to ask for a share of the pearl fishery and the right to send at least two or three dhonies. To humour the king, the governor promised to refer the request to the authorities in Batavia. These authorities promptly directed the governor to make it quite plain to the king that there was not the slightest hope of his obtaining even a single free dhony.

Accordingly, in 1775 the king demanded the restoration of the seaboard. The instructions from Batavia were quick and decisive: as often as the courtiers even mention the restoration of the sea coast to them, at once sternly assure them that they may put all hope of such re-acquisition entirely out of their heads.

Kandy during the colonial era (1505-1948)

As a low-country (maritime region) controlled by the Portuguese and the Dutch for 300 years, Kandy maintained its independence during this period. There had been a lot of changes in the customs, traditions, language and religion of the low-country people of Sri Lanka under the Portuguese and Dutch administration.

They were forced to learn foreign languages, they were forced to embrace Christianity and government patronage for culture and tradition ended and typical Sinhalese values were diminished. During all these changes in the low country, still, the people of Kandy had been able to maintain the authentic Sri Lankan values. Therefore Kandy is given a well-deserved recognition and respect for its dedication and bravery in protecting the values of Sri Lanka and Kandy has become the cultural centre of the Sinhalese race.

British gained control of Kandy

But, the king of Kandy was not able to withstand the foreign forces for long, as the Dutch fled the country with the arrival of British forces. The new invaders revived the effort to take control of Kandy. And this time they were much stronger in firepower while they used several local opponents of the king to apprehend him in 1976. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lanka dynasty and it was brought under British rule in 1796 ending the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

Kingship and court ceremonial during the Kandy period

In Sri Lanka ideas on kingship were derived from the sub-continent of India. There the earliest legend on the origin of kingship occurs in the Aitareya Brahmana, one of the later Vedic texts written perhaps in the eighth or seventh century B.C. It gives an idea, of how the gods and demons fought in a war and the gods feeling that they needed a raja to lead them to battle appointed Indra as their king.

A little later in the Taittiriya Upanisad this story is significantly altered. The gods did not elect Indra but sacrificed to the high god Prajapati who sent his Indra to become their leader. Kingship was thus given divine sanction and his idea prevailed in India although it faced a slight challenge from a dissenting group like the Buddhists.

The Buddhists conceived the king as a being popularly elected (Mahasammata) to safeguard society from anarchy and in return for the protection afforded paid by a share of the grain. This idea carried the most weight in Sri Lanka as is seen in the tenth-century work, the Vamsattappakasin and the nineteenth-century work, the Niti Nighanduva. But in practice, we find this elective theory rather incongruously combined with Hindu and Mahayana beliefs regarding the divinity of kings.

Although the kings of Sri Lanka were no more elected than their Indian brethren were divine, the influence of the elective theory was clearly seen in the Kandyan period when on several occasions the king having left no issue by the anointed queen, the succession was settled by an election.

On four occasions the adigars acting on behalf of the people chose the successor to the throne by a ‘mock election’. It was a monk election for the reason that the choice was pre-arranged but elaborate devices were adopted to show what it was not so, and that the choice was really the people’s.

Davy reports that on the death of the king the adigars would summon the chiefs and people, who according to tradition were entitled to be consulted on the election of a new monarch, to appear in Kandy. In practice, if the deceased monarch had not nominated his successor, the adigars made the choice and obtained the nominal approval of the chiefs and people, and then announced it to the assembly. This public approval even though nominal suggests the ideology that royalty derived its strength from popular support and not from divine right.

The naming ceremony was an important rite connected with accession. The royal astrologers would select suitable names for the new king and write them on gold plates gold deposit them in the Nata Devala.

On an auspicious day, the prince went in state to the Vishnu Devala where he made prostrations to the god. From there he proceeded to the Nata Devala and having gone through the same rite, selected a name and read it to the first adigar who proclaimed aloud.

The naming ceremony seems to suggest that the ruler of the people’s choice had received the approval and blessing of the guardian deities. No crowning ceremony, however, was connected with the accession of the Kandyan king.